Sunday, October 26, 2014

A new definition of journalistic objectivity

Some quick notes: I've recently been involved in several conversations about “objectivity” in journalism. My position is that we have historically misunderstood what objectivity is. Objectivity shouldn't be equated to undeserved balance or to a “view from nowhere,” so I think that the suggestion of dropping the word altogether, made by many in the past few years (Jay Rosen, D.T.Z. Mindich, Jeff Jarvis, etc.,) is misguided. Transparency isn't the new objectivity, either. Transparency is valuable, and it's certainly a component of a possible new understanding of journalistic objectivity, but it's not the entire story.

The point that I've tried to make in recent talks is that journalistic objectivity can and should be redefined, and then taught as a value in schools. If you want to get an idea of what I mean, go to minute 30 of my presentation at ONA14. The slides are here and the Twitter coverage, here. Minute 30 corresponds to pages 37-44 in that document, more or less. Read from there on.

This is the epistemological definition of objectivity in science, which I believe we journalists can adopt; it comes from the wonderful Who Rules in Science:

You may think that this is just a semantics discussion: Rosen, Jarvis, myself, and others may be using different words to describe the same phenomenon. Perhaps. But I disagree.

Objectivity as it's defined above can still be a core ideal in journalism. It means that any journalist is entitled to have an ideology and a point of view, which she should disclose. However, she also needs to make true efforts to curb them using reporting, evidence, and data, rather than embracing them and making them the only lenses through which she sees the world. This is the boundary between journalists and activists; we shouldn't contribute to blur it even more than it already is. Otherwise, we'll face many more appalling situations like the one described in this post, which is a must-read for anyone. Quoting:
The passage of journalism into its digital future is proving more than a little perilous. We seem to be circling a vortex, at the bottom of which lies the perennial problem of money: How can writers, editors, and publishers get paid for their work? I can’t help but feel that a reliance on advertising is encouraging the worst instincts in everyone involved. (…) People like Greenwald and Hussain are so sure that they are on the right side of important issues that, when they see someone whom they imagine to be on the wrong side, they feel justified in distorting his views in an effort to destroy his credibility. This is an all-too-human impulse, of course, but it is extraordinarily destructive behavior in “journalists.
We J-professors are doing a disservice to our students if we tell them that they can't be objective. None of us can be fully objective, for sure. We humans are prone to error, and to fall victim of cognitive biases. But we can learn to apply certain tools —critical thinking, logic, statistics, and the like— that help us strive to be more objective. That's what we should be teaching our students, I think. In an era of rushed judgments, politically skewed news publications, and self-righteous outbursts of rage and snark in social media, the habits of mind encompassed in scientific objectivity are more important than ever.

I explain all this in more detail starting on minute 30 of the ONA talk:


  1. Very interesting, but would be really nice to have the presentation available too, as the video doesn't show any of the graphics discussed

  2. Please ignore/delete - javascript problem prevented Scribd app working..

  3. No problem! Scribd can be tricky, sometimes